The legacy of Seodaemun Prison and its prisoners

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The legacy of Seodaemun Prison and its prisoners

In 1907, Japanese imperialists forcibly dismissed the army of the Daehan (or Korean) Empire (1897-1910). Fearing the Korean people’s resistance, the Japanese Residency General (Tonggambu) embarked on building a modern jail facility under the pretext of offering guidance for political offenders. In October 1908, it opened under the name of the Gyeongseong Prison at 101 Hyeonjeo-dong, Seodaemun District, but has long been remembered as “Seodaemun Prison.”

“In summer, prisoners cannot distinguish their own faces from those of peers due to their breath and sweat. In winter, if there are 20 prisoners in a cell, four cotton blankets are provided. As the blankets are too short to cover the whole body, sockless feet and knees are left susceptible to frostbite. I have seen several prisoners who became disabled due to frozen toes and fingers,” wrote Kim Gu.

Kim was a leader of the Korean independence movement and was imprisoned here in 1911. He wrote of some of his harsh experiences during those days in his autobiography, “Baekbeomilji” (Journal of Baekbeom).

Kim recalled that a Japanese police officer in charge of his case cried out all of a sudden, “You are a healthy and powerful guy who joined Shinminhoi, a national-level underground organization. You are the type of person who usually doesn’t listen very well, calling someone from Japan a ‘Jap.’” He shook his fist at Kim and beat him wildly with a club, saying, “I know you will continue to stubbornly resist, no matter how severe a punishment is inflicted.”

As shown in the testimony of Seonwoo Hoon, who was imprisoned that same year, Japanese imperialists inflicted cruel torture on independence activists to cause them to lose their courage. They practiced as many as 72 methods of torture. A large number of patriots, including female patriot Yoo Kwan-soon, become victims of national independence.

“A warm spring breeze blows even on the scaffold. I remain gloomy, as I have a breath of life in my body but lack my homeland.” These lines were written by patriot Kang Wu-gyu who plotted to kill Governor General Makoto Saito in 1920, and ended his glorious days on the gallows in the Seodaemun Prison. They killed our national leaders but failed to deprive them of their spirit of independence.

Although the spring came again with the defeat of Japanese imperialism in August 1945, spring was not quite completely here yet. Those who demanded the restoration of democracy endured the hardships of prison life until it was closed in 1987.

This place, where many patriots left their marks in history, will long be remembered as a holy place for national independence from Japanese colonialism and democratization.

At the moment, we have already built a solid basis of a multidimensional civil society, through which we enjoy abundance and freedom.

Seodaemun Prison will serve as a reminder that we should bear in mind the words Memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember, you will die.”

The writer is the dean of the school of liberal arts at Kyung Hee University.

By Huh Dong-hyun
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